by Tim Atkin

Brunello and Bordeaux: a tale of two appellations

Brunello and Bordeaux, Bordeaux and Brunello. Italy and France’s most famous wine regions have a lot in common, not least that they both hold high-profile tastings in the first part of the year. If it’s February, it must be Tuscany, invariably in the snow; if it’s April, it must be the Gironde, accompanied by spring flowers and, if you’re lucky, deckchair weather.

The two tastings are different in one crucial respect, however. In Montalcino, the wines are bottled samples, released a few weeks earlier on January 1; in Bordeaux they are raw reds that, in some cases, haven’t completed malolactic fermentation and won’t be released for another 18 to 24 months. I can taste 120 Brunellos without any problem; the same number of Bordeaux leaves my teeth crying out for Sensodyne toothpaste, unless it’s a super ripe vintage like 2009.

Sangiovese can be a tannic grape, but it’s nothing like as chewy as Cabernet Sauvignon or Petit Verdot. All three (alongside Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec in Bordeaux) generally need time in barrel, cask and bottle before they are even vaguely approachable. Imagine how much easier it would be to judge the new Bordeaux releases if we were tasting 2008s (the case in Montalcino this year) as opposed to 2012s.

There’s also the small matter of the reliability of the samples. Honest cellar masters in Bordeaux will admit that what we taste in April every year are unfinished wines. In many cases, the exact blend of grape varieties and the percentage of press wine aren’t finalised. And what about so-called journalists’ barrels? They may not exist, but only a fool would miss the chance to show his most forward, aromatic lots in April. As one Bordelais admitted to me: “It’s basically a competition between coopers.” That and how people manage tannin.

Does anyone in Bordeaux analyse the en primeur samples and compare them with what appears in bottle? The whole sales pitch has become so important to the top châteaux – get a few high scores and you can crank up your prices – that manipulation, to put it no more strongly than that, has become part of the game. The truly ludicrous thing is that prices are set after, not before, the tasting. Whether we like it or not, wine writers and their scores, tasting notes and general view of the new vintage are part of a process that conspires against the very people whose interests we are supposed to represent: consumers.

If it’s true that 2012 has turned out to be another decent if unexciting year (as opposed to one of those twice-a-decade vintages of the century) then now might be a good time to pause for breath. And maybe even change the system. It would make a lot of sense to taste great vintages like 2005, 2009 and 2010 once they are bottled; but even less concentrated wines would benefit from more time between harvest and en primeur week. It’s too late to postpone the tasting of the 2012s, but how about tasting the 2013s in 2015, or even 2016?

One respect in which Bordeaux scores over Brunello is in its use of communes and sub-appellations. There are clearly defined differences between, say, a Pomerol, a Margaux, a Pauillac and a St Estèphe, but all Brunello is sold under a single DOCG. The equivalent in Bordeaux would be to label Mouton-Cadet and Château Mouton-Rothschild with the same generic appellation.

At 2,100 hectares, the area that can produce Brunello is much smaller than that of Bordeaux (115,000 hectares), but it’s arguably just as diverse as, say, the Médoc. The differences between the cool north-east, the warm south and the classic central zone around the town of Montalcino can be extremely marked, both in cooler years like 2008, when sunshine was at a premium, and hotter ones like 2003, when it definitely wasn’t. Whatever the vintage, there can be a three week spread of harvest dates across the region.

This being Italy, no one can agree on how many sub-zones there should be. Kerin O’Keefe in her excellent book on the region, Brunello di Montalcino, makes a strong case for seven sub-zones. More recently, three producers (Pian dell’Orino, Salicutti and Stella di Campalto) have published a soil map of their own, arguing that there are four distinct areas within Montalcino.

Will zonazione, as it’s known locally, happen? So far, the prospects don’t look good. The Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino isn’t interested, partly because it could be very divisive in a town that isn’t short of existing divisions. Another objection is that at least a dozen producers, some of them famous names such as Gianni Brunelli, Siro Pacenti and Casanova di Neri, blend grapes from one or more sub-zones. But why not continue to call their wines Brunello, as is currently the case, and use sub-zones on more specific bottlings?

For now, Montalcino has no sub-zones, no crus and over 250 producers, ranging from the world class to the depressingly mediocre. Bordeaux, meanwhile, has an en primeur system that is unregulated, open to abuse and arguably works against the interests of consumers. Both great wine regions could learn a thing or two from one another. Bordeaux and Brunello, Brunello and Bordeaux.

Originally published in Off Licence News